Coinciding with the 10th anniversary of Johnny Cash’s death (September 12), My Father and the Man in Black, a powerful and unique new documentary film comes out theatrically this Friday in select cities and on iTunes, VOD, DVD and elsewhere soon after.
My Father and the Man in Black is the riveting insider tale not so much of Johnny Cash, per se (although, of course he looms large over the entire narrative) but of his longtime Canadian manger, Saul Holiff, who committed suicide in 2004 and the interaction between these two troubled men that went into creating Cash’s monumental career.
In what is surely one of the only examples one can point to of a manager leaving behind a superstar client, Holiff “fired” Johnny Cash in the early 1970s. The film’s director, Jonathan Holiff, and his father rarely had any contact in the decades before his death. The father left no letter. His son would get no closure. He got nothing.
At least not until his mother makes him aware of a storage locker with some recordings the elder Holiff had made of telephone calls between himself and Cash during the 60s and 70s. These are the years when Cash was setting forest fires, getting nabbed at the border with hundreds of Mexican amphetamines and generally raising hell in the way we all know that Johnny Cash did. Saul Holiff was the guy who got him OUT of those troubles, brought June Carter into his life, cleaned up his many messes and made him into an internationally beloved superstar and American icon. We even get to listen to Johnny Cash, all good and hopped up on goofballs, sounding like a crazy man and ranting a mile a minute. It’s pretty cool stuff, I must admit.
Among the tapes Holiff found were hours of highly personal, confessional and often very depressed audio diaries made by his father. Some of what the son found in these tapes were real heart-tugging “Cat’s in the Cradle”-style lamentations of a father missing his young family.
With a skillful way of using unobtrusive “recreations” that don’t in any way become annoying, Jonathan Holiff tells a really damned good story here—My Father and the Man in Black is very novelistic for a documentary—and manages to rise above the creative limitations that his predominantly audio archival treasure trove would force on the telling of this tale. There’s one part that’s particularly “woah!” where Johnny Cash has self-financed a film about the Holy Land and is basically demanding of his Jewish manager “Do you accept Jesus Christ as your savior or not?” and that’s when Saul Holiff had simply had enough of what he perceived as his client’s born-again Christian bullshit and got out of the situation. (He went on to manage the Statler Brothers.)
I highly, highly recommend My Father and the Man, not just as a sidebar to better understanding Johnny Cash, but as a wholly fascinating—and very original—film on its own merits. It may seem like it’s one thing—and it is that, don’t get me wrong—but there are many surprises and wonderful details in store for viewers of My Father and the Man in Black that are completely unexpected. And very moving.
My Father and the Man has won a few dozen “best doc” awards in the festivals and it’s easy to see why.
My Father and the Man in Black opens in Los Angeles and New York this Friday, September 6th and in select cities nationwide. The film will be available on iTunes (where you can pre-order it now), VOD, and Amazon Instant Video on September 10th and DVD on October 1. Director Jonathan Holiff will be doing Q&As at the Music Hall 3 in Beverly Hills opening weekend. The Johnny Cash tribute band The Mighty Cash Cats will perform at 6:30PM on September 6 prior to the 7:15PM showing.